PAL cop files whistle-blower suit

Zenak
Zenak
Posted: June 15, 2012

OFFICER PAUL ZENAK thinks he's been asking too many questions. That's the only way he can make sense of it.

Why else did Zenak — a decorated 21-year Philadelphia Police veteran and former Officer of the Year in his district — go from being what a sergeant described as an "outstanding" and "highly recommended" director of the Wissinoming Police Athletic League center to a cop with a tarnished reputation and two bizarre reprimands in his personnel file?

Someone, Zenak thinks, is "playing dirty" at PAL. And he's not talking flag football.

Zenak, 42, a married father of four from Northeast Philly, says his troubles started in September, after a contractor pointed out what he said was exposed asbestos around a pipe running across the "homework room" at Wissinoming United Methodist Church, which rents space to PAL for its children's activities.

The contractor, Joseph Bailey of New Jersey-based JBailey Builders, later removed the pipe wrapping and declared the area safe, but left behind dust and debris, Zenak said.

"It was all over the ground," he said. "It was a mess, a complete and utter mess."

That's when Zenak, who has been running the PAL center at Comly and Jackson streets since 2008, started asking questions about Bailey's qualifications and how he was being paid. In a nonprofit with a slogan of "Cops Helping Kids," he figures he had a right to be concerned about the air he and the children were breathing — especially considering that asbestos had been removed from the building shortly before he was named director.

"Nothing more, nothing less. It was all I cared about," said Zenak, who is using accrued sick days due to asthma-like symptoms.

Instead of getting answers, he says, he was written up. In March, Zenak's new supervisor, Sgt. Kevin Rice, handed him two letters of reprimand, accusing him of not filing required paperwork and running the PAL center poorly. It was the first reprimand Zenak had received in two decades with the department. He says the allegations are bogus.

"I was shocked, angry, embarrassed. I had never received anything like this. They were very strange," he said of the letters. "He told me all my paperwork had vanished."

Last month, Zenak filed a lawsuit against the Police Department and PAL, alleging that they had violated the state whistle-blower law by retaliating against him when he questioned Bailey's work. The suit also alleges that PAL funds for the project may have been misappropriated.

Lt. Ray Evers, a police spokesman, said two air-quality tests conducted at the PAL center came back negative for asbestos.

"The safety of the kids and the officers is paramount," he said, declining to comment on Zenak's retaliation claim.

Bailey, who said he believes that his PAL contract was canceled because of Zenak's complaints, said the pipe wrapping he removed was not asbestos, although "originally, I thought it was."

Zenak is worried that the ordeal could prevent him from advancing or transferring to other positions. And, asbestos or not, he wants to know why his concerns ended with his being harassed and punished by his bosses.

"I was doing what I was supposed to do," he said, "and doing what I love." n

Contact William Bender at 215-854-5255 or benderw@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @wbender99.

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